The convention singer as spiritual transistor
A trove of what appear to be new Stamps Baxter singing school videos have recently been uploaded to YouTube and will more than reward your time (h/t, KC; “new” insofar as very few people had viewed them as of this a.m. and I don’t recall having seen versions of them before; look for videos with an upload date of May 31, 2011). Here’s one from 2005:
And another from 2010:
As usual the piano work here is as much (or more) of the attraction for me than the singing, though I hasten to add that that’s not a swipe at the singing. Indeed, I’ve just spent a weekend at a conference on the study of religion in America, and one of the issues that came up repeatedly focused on the importance of understanding religious experience as deeply connected with the physical worlds we live in, inhabit, physically, as individuals and groups. Perhaps that sounds pretty self-evident, but in matters of things divine and supernatural, it’s also true that abstractions too often displace serious treatment of the lived contexts in which religious experience happens.
So, for instance, it is, of course, true that one way to talk about the better moments in these kinds of videos - which typically fall toward the middle and end of the pieces - is as evidence of that the group is becoming more familiar with the notes on the page and their ability to translate what they see into something we can hear. In other words, we use the language of form and content analysis that is pretty common around here and speak of technical skills associated with sight-singing in the shape-note tradition manifesting themselves in musical performance.
And this way of approaching and understanding the music is, undoubtedly, true. But early this morning in the Indianapolis airport, feeling the transport of different musical moments in these clips sweep over and through me (all the more powerful for its contrast to the existentially dismal world of an international airport in the pre-dawn hours), it occurred to me that another way to talk about these moments is as the merging of discrete religious experiences into a coalescent expression of faith and feeling far greater than its constituent parts. Actually, my exact response was to laugh out loud for the sheer gobsmacking goodness of several moments, but I had a three hour plane ride to translate that laugh into something a little more concrete. No, these aren’t always the most lyrically or even musically sophisticated songs you could find, as some commenters here have pointed out before, but what distinguishes this music, it seems to me, is the embodied and felt experience made possible from the available musical materials.
In the singing convention setting, people don’t just sing their notes in a virtual isolation booth that effectively walls them off from their neighbors or the accompanist or the audience … or, above all, the gospel sound itself. Rather the individual is - ideally at least - in the process of losing a certain of part of the ordinary (and ordinarily essential) boundaries that keep the world at bay, help keep individual identity intact. And as those barriers break down, as the notes come easier, as the singing self starts to dissolve - just a little - and sight-singing gives way to music making, a great flowing feeling of soul-soaring graciousness seems to both descend to and
immanent emanate from you at the same time and … well, it strikes me as rather like the convention singer coming into being as a kind of musical spiritual transistor.
Turn your radio on, indeed.Email this Post